The suggestion that the question in the title is a mark of our times one can glean at any rate when perusing a recently fast-rising number of prognoses (some among them dressed/disguised as diagnoses), extrapolating, as is the way with predictions, from the most recent and statistically most common headlines. Hobbes’ Leviathan – until not so long ago believed to have duly acquitted itself of its postulated mission of suppressing the inborn cruelty of humans, so making human life among humans liveable, and not ‘nasty, brutish and short’ as it would otherwise have been – is less and less trusted to do its job properly, or indeed to be capable of having its job properly done. Human endemic aggressiveness, resulting time and again in a propensity for violence, appears to have been anything but mitigated, let alone extinguished; it is very much alive and always ready to be kicking at a moment’s notice – or indeed without notice.
The ‘civilizing process’ that was meant to have been designed, conducted and monitored by the modern state, looks more and more as Norbert Elias (whether intentionally or inadvertently) presented it: as a reform of human manners, not human capacities, predispositions and impulses. In the course of the civilizing process, acts of human violence were shuffled out of sight, not out of human nature, as well as ‘outsourced’, ‘contracted out’ to professionals (bespoke tailors, so to speak, of violence), or ‘subsidiarized’ to lesser, ‘unclean’ humans – e.g. slaves, bondage demi-slaves or servants (scapegoats, so to speak, on whose shoulders shameful sins of untamed aggression were dumped): a process not substantially different from that accomplished in India, many centuries before, by its caste system, which relegated the jobs considered impure, demeaning and polluting (such as, for instance, butchering, removal of rubbish, disposal of animal carcasses and of human waste) to the ‘untouchables’ – a caste outside the caste system: to the so-called ‘Panchama’ – the fifth caste, placed, without the right to return, outside (read: ‘beneath’), or, more to the point, in a social void, stripped of the moral/behavioural rules binding, and by and large observed, inside the society proper – the four-partite Varna, to which the main bulk of Indian society was assumed to belong, just like their quite recent reincarnation in the form of the ‘underclass’ – a class outside the class system and so outside class-divided society. The ‘civilizing’ function of the ‘civilizing process’ consisted in putting paid to public executions, pillories or gallows on public squares, as well as shifting the job of quartering the blood-dripping animal carcasses from the dining rooms, where they’d be consumed, to the kitchens, seldom if ever visited by the diners; or, for that matter, in celebrating simultaneously the human natural mastery and contrived moral superiority over animals in the annual ritual of fox-hunting. Ervin Goffman would add to that list of civilizing jobs ‘civil inattention’ – the art of averting one’s eyes from a stranger on the sidewalk, inside the shared carriage or in a dentist’s waiting room – which signals an intention to abstain from engagement, lest an interaction between mutually unfamiliar actors lead to unsavoury impulses escaping control, and so to embarrassing disclosure of the ‘animal in man’ who needs be kept in a cage, under lock and key and out of sight.
With the help of these and similar stratagems and expedients, the Hobbesian animal inside the human emerged from the modern reform of manners untamed and intact, in its pristine and potent, crude, coarse, boorish/loutish form, which the civilizing process managed to veneer over and/or ‘outsource’ (as in the case of transferring displays of aggression from battlefields to football pitches), but not to mend, let alone to exorcise. That animal lies in waiting, ready to wipe out the dreadfully thin coating of conventional decorum – meant to hide the unprepossessing, rather than suppress and contain the sinister and gory.
Timothy Snyder suggests, in his re-reading and reevaluating of the grisly and baneful experience of the Holocaust (and in particular of the fact of the evil being perpetrated by many, as the ‘moral instinct’ and ‘human goodness’ few only could afford and demonstrate):
Perhaps we imagine that we would be rescuers in some future catastrophe. Yet if states were destroyed, local institutions corrupted, and economic incentives directed towards murder, few of us would behave well. There is little reason to think that we are ethically superior to the
Europeans of 1930s and 1940s, or for that matter less vulnerable to the kind of ideas that Hitler so successfully promulgated and realized.1
What we deemed, self-consolingly, to be (at least in its intention, if not in the already tangible effects) a social-engineering feat of excising and banishing Mr Hyde from Dr Jekyll’s innards once and for all, looks and feels more and more like another Dorian Gray-style attempt at a cosmetic surgery designed to change places between reality and its presentation. If applied in real life, cosmetic interventions tend to require regular repetitions, as the effects of each one have, as a rule, a short life-expectancy. What we come to realize is that, instead of aiming at the ultimate, once-and-for-all and definitely victorious battle of calmness/courtesy/distance-keeping against violence, we need to brace ourselves for an infinitely long string of ‘proactive’ counteractions. We seem to be settling for a prospect of a continuous and never conclusive war-to-exhaustion between ‘good violence’ (conducted in the service of law and order, however defined) and ‘bad violence’ (perpetrated for the purpose of undermining, breaking and incapacitating the current rendition of law and order) – ‘bad’ also for its insidious temptation to compel the forces of ‘good violence’ to adopt the tools and strategy of its enemy. We have to file a violence-free world among perhaps the most beautiful – though also, alas, the most out-of-reach – utopias.
How are we to account for that poorly anticipated (though no less radical and consequential for that reason) turn in the way we tend to think of the phenomenon of violence? That turn could have happened because of the sudden eruption of acts of violence being brought home by the ubiquitous and indefatigable media, after the pattern suggested by William Randolph Hearst’s recipe for attention-grabbing news (‘news ought to be served like coffee – fresh and hot’), in a way that literally forces them into our attention. And could that outburst of highly visible, palpable violence be seen as an effect of borders, (once imagined to be like impassable ramparts) having been made highly porous and osmotic – buffeted as they are by the swelling tides stirred and beefed up by the on-going processes of globalization?
Perhaps the shift in thought can be made intelligible as a derivative of the shift in practice by the states abandoning in deed, if not in so many words, their past ambition for a monopoly on the means and application of coercion? Or perhaps the right to draw the line between legitimate (i.e., serving the preservation of order) and illegitimate (i.e., disturbing or undermining that order) coercion, believed to be a prerogative of highly selective and definitely, unambiguously fixed agents, has joined the unstoppably lengthening roster of ‘essentially contested’ (to deploy Alfred North Whitehead’s term) issues – and is now believed to be bound to stay forever contested. To take a leaf from the conceptual framework suggested by Snyder: contemporary states are currently plotted somewhere on the axis drawn between Max Weber’s ideal type of the state holding a monopoly on the means of coercion and Snyder’s ‘failed’ (or fallen, or felled) state – or, which amounts in practice to the same, a ‘stateless territory’.
The right to draw (and redraw at will, if needed) the line between legitimate and illegitimate, permitted and
prohibited, legal and criminal, tolerated and intolerable coercion is the principal stake in power struggles. Possession of such a right is, after all, the defining attribute of power – while the capability of using that right and rendering its use binding for others is the defining trait of domination. Establishing and executing that right was viewed since Leviathan
as the domain of politics – a prerogative of, and a task to be accomplished by, the government
standing for the political
body. Closer to our time, that view has been extensively argued and emphatically reconfirmed by Max Weber (in his decision to define the political state by its monopoly on the means – and so, presumably, on the use – of coercion), acquiring an all but canonical status in socialpolitical scholarship. Though, as Leo Strauss2
warned insightfully on the threshold of our liquid-modern era, when discussing the precepts of the historicist approach to the human condition:
there always have been and there always will be surprising, wholly unexpected, changes of outlook which radically modify the meaning of all previously acquired knowledge. No view of the whole, and in particular no view of the whole of human life, can claim to be final and universally valid. Every doctrine, however seemingly final, will be superseded sooner or later by another doctrine. (p. 21)
All human thought depends on fate, on something that thought cannot master and whose workings it cannot anticipate. (p. 27)
It is due to fate that the essential dependence of thought on fate is realized now, and was not realized in earlier times. (p. 28)
Two earlier-voiced, authoritative and seminal visions/ warnings jump to mind as laying the ground for Strauss’ reasoning: Hegel’s (of the Owl of Minerva that spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk), and Marx’s (of humans making history, albeit under conditions not of their choice). Between themselves, those three warnings/recommendations justify a thorough revision of Hobbes’ vision of the state as the guarantor of its wards’ security – and as its subjects’ sole chance of defence against human intrinsic (instinctual and impulsive) aggressiveness, and so of being effectively protected from the unmanageable violence of others. They even suggest – even if obliquely – the possibility of listing the state, once described as the prime (or even the only) warrant of human security and the sole insurance against violence, among the prime factors/ causes/operators of the currently prevailing ambiance of un-safety and vulnerability to violence.
One of today’s foremost, sharpest and most outspoken cultural/social critics, Henry Giroux – the author of America’s Addiction to Terrorism, published by the Monthly Review – goes as far as concluding that:
built into the system is a kind of systemic violence that’s destroying the planet, all sense of public good and democracy – and it controls itself no longer by ideology, but by the rise of a punishing state – where everything is increasingly criminalized because it offers a threat to the financial elite and the control they have over the country . . . Neoliberalism injects violence into our lives, and fear into our politics.3
I would add: and vice versa; violence into politics, and fear into our lives. And, saying ‘ours’, I wish to emphasize the impossibility of isolation from other people’s gruesome fate in a world criss-crossed by information highways. People residing among the debris of the fallen states in the devilish belt between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, people with bodies and souls clotted with injections of fears and violence, come to our homes to roost – their all-too-visible, obtrusive, nagging and hugely discomforting presence in ever closer proximity to our homes as the impossible to overlook signals that, time and again, and with fast-rising frequency, challenge and defy our defensive inclination to stifle / suspend / repress into the s...